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Pennsylvania, Lehigh Valley Region Pave Way for 5G

A recent state law provides a legislative framework for deploying “small wireless facilities” — the infrastructure that supports 4G and 5G, including where devices can go, and how much local governments can control.

Small Cell
(TNS) — A decade or more ago, the conversation was about giant cell towers — and how people didn’t want them in their proverbial back yard.

Steve Travers, now Catasauqua’s manager, remembers sitting in zoning board hearings in Delaware County where officials sounded off about the eyesore they could become.

Meanwhile, he said, “everybody’s sitting there on their cellphone.”

Then it was about the smaller cell towers on top of buildings. Now it’s about boxes on street poles that are capable of producing 4G and, more recently, 5G internet broadband networks.

“Five years from now, it’s going to be something else,” Travers said.

Four major mobile carriers have already begun to roll out 5G antennae and boxes, called “small cell nodes” or “small wireless facilities,” in dozens of large U.S. cities.

Local municipalities are getting ready.

In February 2020, Lower Macungie Township became the first Lehigh Valley municipality to adopt a zoning ordinance guiding the size, placement, construction and maintenance of the eventual 5G cells and antennas. The nodes can be mounted on street lights, utility poles, buildings and similar structures.

“We had a unified desire to get ahead of it,” Commissioner Ron Beitler said. “We acknowledge this is the next level technology. We want it for economic development, but we also need to be mindful that these facilities need to be sighted suitably.”

In other words, municipalities want to avoid having boxes appear outside residents’ windows.

A recently signed state law provides a legislative framework for deploying “small wireless facilities” — the infrastructure that supports 4G and 5G. That includes where the devices can go, and how much local governments can control that. It means Lower Macungie will have to reexamine its ordinance, Beitler said, but offers other area cities, townships and boroughs a clear signal about how to proceed.

The law standardizes permit costs and the zoning requirements for boxes put in public rights-of-way, while retaining the local municipality’s ability to customize design for historic districts or environmental concerns.

1G merely transmitted analog voice in the 1980s, 2G enabled digital voice in the 1990s, 3G added the internet to phones in the early 2000s, and 4G broadened the reach of that data in 2009. 5G is the next generation of mobile internet connectivity, with far faster speeds — 10-100 times faster than 4G — and the ability to enable “smart” homes, cars, fridges, or what’s known as the Internet of Things.

The wireless industry lobbied for the new law for years, said Dan Cohen of the Cohen Law Group, a Pittsburgh firm that represents local governments in wireless and broadband litigation. An initial iteration of the bill about four years ago would have taken away local zoning authority over these wireless facilities and did not allow municipalities to govern design guidelines. Over the last couple of months, Pennsylvania municipal associations, industry representatives and state lawmakers came together to negotiate a bill that was more acceptable to both sides, said Cohen, who sat in on the negotiations.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed the Small Wireless Facilities Deployment Act into law June 30.

More than three dozen states have passed some version of this law, said Peter Schweyer, a co-sponsor of the original House bill and Allentown’s state representative. It’s especially necessary, he said, in Pennsylvania, a commonwealth with an unusually large number of municipalities — 2,800 — all with their own sets of rules. The aim is to level the playing field so that companies don’t cherry-pick municipalities in which to build networks.

“If Pennsylvania as a whole ever wants to be competitive … we need to deploy 5G across the state,” he said. “We should in Allentown already have a fully built 5G platform, and we are nowhere near that.”

Instead, during the pandemic, Allentown School District gave out thousands of hot spots to students without Wi-Fi at home. While everyone was at home streaming movies, the students had less internet bandwidth to do their school work.

“We needed to do something to encourage this development,” Schweyer said.

Allentown city officials adopted its own small cell wireless ordinance, which is similar to the outlines of the state law, in July 2020. Cohen’s law firm has worked with more than 200 municipalities in Pennsylvania to craft similar ordinances.

Small wireless facilities, or boxes, already exist on poles in many communities in a piecemeal fashion. The wireless industry started rolling these out in 2012 to boost their coverage capabilities, even though municipalities didn’t have the zoning ordinances to manage them, Cohen said. These boxes, which are 28 cubic feet at most, have 4G capabilities and need only an antennae switch to become 5G-capable.

A big legal game-changer for municipalities was a 2018 order from the Federal Communications Commission that defined small cell facilities and removed some regulatory barriers to broadband infrastructure deployment by setting limits on fees and aesthetic control. While this helped kickstart deployment in major U.S. cities, coverage remains spotty because these cells have yet to be widely and consistently deployed.

5G cells require more access points to achieve the same broadband coverage. An Aspen Institute paper in 2015 noted this as a regulatory challenge for policymakers “to ensure access for this vastly increased number of sites.”

A challenge indeed: Portland, Oregon, challenged these FCC orders, but a federal appeals court rejected the challenge, though the city won the right to at least specify aesthetic standards. Portland appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which last week decided not to take the case.

Verizon first approached Catasauqua nearly three years ago about tying into a couple OF borough-owned poles, Travers said. The company submitted an agreement right before the pandemic, which borough officials were waiting to act on until the Portland’s case settled.

The new state law sets guidelines to move forward, Travers said.

“They’re going to be here no matter what you do,” he said. “You’re getting them but at least now we’ll be able to regulate the aesthetics of them.”

There’s been some pushback worldwide to the rollout of 5G, owing to the lack of conclusive studies on the health impacts of the emission of radiofrequency waves associated with 5G. 5G systems operate at frequencies close to those used by current cellular networks — in 2019, the FCC chair announced it would maintain existing radiofrequency exposure limits — but they will also use millimeter waves to handle high data traffic.

A group of doctors and scientists in 2017 launched an online appeal to the European Union asking for a moratorium on the rollout of 5G until these health effects could be studied.

A 2019 study in the journal Environmental Research did not find a notable increase in everyday radiofrequency exposure in the environment since 2012 despite the vast increase in use of mobile phones and small cell nodes.

Exposure levels might temporarily increase during early stages of 5G implementation since it will operate in parallel with the current mobile communications system, according to information shared by the International Telecommunication Union during an expert meeting in Italy in 2017. But in the long run, scientists don’t expect an increase in exposure in the overall environment, since the small cells are lower-power, shorter range devices, as opposed to large cell towers emitting high power over a much larger range.

Companies and trade associations like the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association applaud the Pennsylvania legislation, citing a Boston Consulting Group study that estimates 5G deployment will add 126,500 jobs and more than $45 billion in GDP growth in Pennsylvania by 2030.

“In rural and hard-to-serve areas, these reforms may spur wireless investment and deployment, helping bridge the digital divide,” spokesperson Caitlin Miller said.

How soon 5G rolls out to communities everywhere is tough to pin down. CTIA, the trade group, predicts the number of small cells will grow from about 150,000 today to 800,000 by the end of 2026. .

“What we’ve seen is a slow but sure acceleration of that deployment,” Cohen said.

© 2021 The Morning Call. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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